Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 024 - Protecting Our Pollinators featuring Eric Lee-Mäder and Rachel Coventry

Eric Lee-Mäder: There seems to be a real tendency right now to think that they’re going to save bees by keeping bees. Bees are not suffering for lack of a home. The declines that we’re seeing in honey bees and in wild bees has so much more to do with the condition of the land around us. We’ve created a really difficult environment for pollinators of all kinds and wildlife of all kinds.

Mallory Daily: This is our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Today on the show - the role of native pollinators in agriculture. That was Eric Lee-Mäder, Pollinator Conservation Co-Director at The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Seattle, WA. He’ll be speaking with Rachel Coventry, beekeeper at Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Champagne, IL.

Rachel Coventry: I’ve been involved in my family’s farm since I was a kid. And I've always been involved in beekeeping because we kept bees on the farm I would always observe them and find them fascinating. But I really got started when I joined the PeaceCorps and I worked in Paraguay with the local people there and their bees.

Mallory Daily: Saving our pollinators might not be as simple as honey-enthusiasts like myself would like to believe.

Eric Lee-Mäder: The question that I am probably most fatigued by, and I'm guessing you are, too, Rachel, is the perennial question of what's going on with the bees.

Rachel Coventry: Yes.

Eric Lee-Mäder: Which, as you know, it's not a simple question and the answers to it, although they're not necessarily complex answers, they're sometimes frustrating answers for people to hear. It seems like the solutions are not necessarily always that that abstract, but they are sort of intractable. How about for you?

Rachel Coventry: Definitely. Or they say, I want to keep bees because I love the honey and for me that's frustrating because I don't think you should approach beekeeping for the end result of the honey. While that's wonderful, if you want to be a successful beekeeper, you need to understand much more about them and you realize that honey is just one small part of it. So I say, "You know, yeah, the honey is great, but the plight of the bees is not going to be saved by harvesting honey." It's going to be saved by understanding how the bee colony works together and the habitat and providing habitat and nectar and floral sources for them for as much of the growing season as possible.

Eric Lee-Mäder: There seems to be a real tendency right now among people to think that they're going to save bees by keeping bees. And I mean, as you know, bees are not suffering for lack of homes. I mean they're really--the declines that we're seeing in honeybees and in wild bees has so much more to do with the condition of the land around us, whether it's lack of pollen and nectar resources, whether it's pesticide use. We've created a really difficult environment for pollinators of all kinds and for wildlife of all kinds. And in many ways the last thing they need is somebody thinking they're going to save bees by keeping them and not necessarily being fully invested in the entire knowledge of what that responsibility entails. I definitely notice that people seem sometimes less enthusiastic about the harder work of reshaping our landscapes and less enthusiastic about the really hard work of planting habitat, of working within the food system and even outside of the food system to try to foster agriculture that's more amenable. That creates a better living condition for wildlife and for honey bees as well. So Rachel, let me ask you, what are you doing beyond just sort of the beekeeping or bee husbandry practices? What are you doing on your farm to try to create an environment that allows your bees to thrive?

Rachel Coventry: We have lots of things that are blooming besides our apples and pumpkins. So most people who visit our farm, that's what they see because that's what is available for our visitors. But on our farm we also have lots of small fruits like blueberries and red raspberries, black raspberries, strawberries, cherry trees, apricots, just to name a few. We also let all of our parking lots grow with various clovers and dandelions and we don't mow them unless they're, you know, so tall. So we try and have forage for them. I also have several little a wild flower pollinator pocket gardens and we're also very close to town and I know there's a lot of master naturalists and master gardeners that are in that area that care very deeply for pollinators. And as you know, honey bees will fly three to five miles. So if you look at that range, although we all have plenty of corn and soybeans surrounding us. We have a very nice little climate where there's plenty of forage in the area. So I mean, not every year is it great because the weather, as you know, is a factor as to whether there's going to be forage days or whether the rain will wash out nectar and pollen sources for the bees.

Eric Lee-Mäder: Yeah, I'm interested in that, that comment about the corn and soy around you because knowing where you are in the world, I mean you are in the heart of, you know, probably the greatest density of corn and soybean, and especially corn production in at least North America. What's it like? I mean, I know you must have challenges associated with that. How do you feel like it's impacting both, you know, both your bees but thinking about the type of agriculture you do in general, that it's hard to imagine that that doesn't have a certain amount of pressure that it exerts on the type of life and the type of farm ecosystem you're trying to create.

Rachel Coventry: Yes. I never tested the wax, but I know wax definitely holds a lot of pesticides, so I'm sure that impacts our colonies, whether I can say it's that specifically or that's probably one aspect of it, cause you know there's lots of rural pressure--mites, other pests and diseases. And if you're not testing it all the time, you're not necessarily going to know what's going on. One of our aspects, I worked on a SARE grant started in 2015 with another beekeeper and it was to study, you know, promoting pollination on small farms. And you know, the difference with migratory beekeepers is they're moving their bees into the orchards and then pulling them back out. And we used to do that. We always thought we had to move them into the orchard to put them right next to the target crop. But then we would go bee spotting. And we found, you know, there really wasn't a great number of bees in the orchard, even if they're right next to all the blooming apple trees. And you go to the cherry trees, which are just a little farther away from the hives, and they're just flooded with bees. So you think, you know, there's some correlation with what they prefer with the nectar content. 

And beyond that, we decided to leave the bees stationary, which there's less stress on them when they're not even having to move. You've heard, I'm sure, of the two-foot, two-mile rule and we didn't have as many bee losses. When I would move them, I would have to go back to the original location and I would put a box there or I'd see them all clustered on a branch that I had left there, scoop them back up, take them back to their hive and you know it's very stressful and challenging. So leaving them in their stationary spot, being a small farm I found I no longer needed to move them, which was easier on me as a beekeeper. Anything you can promote for the farmer that's less work and also beneficial is great. Same with planting wild flowers that you wouldn't have to mow. That is also less labor intensive in the long run. Obviously getting something like that established, it's very time consuming. Our farm used to be hog, corn and soybeans, the 80-acres. When my grandfather originally--he still owns it--but when he was originally there and you know, he felt, what am I doing with this land? It can't support one family, let alone any heirs that I may have. And that's when he got inspired. He said, "I always liked apples. Why not plant apples?" So that's when the orchard started turning around and became what it is and now it supports three families on it. And I'm the third generation.

Eric Lee-Mäder: Beyond just the bees, what are you working on for novel crops or new crops?

Rachel Coventry: We're kind of in a zone where peaches don't grow real well, but we just started getting into adding peaches. Not that those are anything no one's ever heard of. Just new varieties of apples. We're always looking for something that our customer really loves and most of them like sweet eating apples. So we're always trying to connect them with the seasonality of things and understanding that so many people have this disconnect that go to the grocery store. And I mean, you can get any kind of variety of apple you want any time of year. And they'll call us in February and say, "Hey, can I come pick apples? It's a nice day. You know, it's sunny or whatever." Like, you are aware there is absolutely nothing growing on the trees right now. You know, and just trying to get that connection. And that was one of the whole reasons my grandfather started the business he wanted people to get that connection again to understanding the growing season and the effort and the process it takes to get your food to your table. So that's really what we work on. I mean, we have lots of agritourism, too, so people are coming out and, you know, playing on bounce houses and riding ponies and getting their face painted. So people come for so many different reasons to get away from the city, to experience nature. And we like to be a place where families can gather and hopefully learn a little something even while they're having fun eating apple donuts and cider slushes.

Eric Lee-Mäder: So, not to make any assumptions, but looking at you, you know, I would venture to guess you're probably one of the younger members of the management team. So presumably this is, you know, this is something you're going to be having a longterm involvement with. Where do you see your self and where do you see your farm going over the next, I don't know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years?

Rachel Coventry: Well, my goal as a manager slash coming into ownership is to eventually replace myself. So if I can inspire my children or the nieces and nephews to have a strong work ethic and care about the orchard, I see the orchard being passed on from generation to generation by being sustainably, not only profitable, but also very rich in the land and caring about the conservation and keeping the bees and other projects going on the property. Also, you know, minimizing risks wherever possible, whether that be outside pressure from development that's happening around us, people coming to the farm and injuring themselves. So lawsuits, any kind of all those types of risks, just like you were talking about diversification, we're always looking at that sort of thing. 2012, you probably remember well because many, many farmers lost their crops. Mostly fruit crops because of the hard freeze that happened all through the Midwest and Eastern Coast. We probably had 1 percent, if that, of a crop, but yet we were able to at least break even. And that's amazing when so many orchards didn't even dare open their doors because they had absolutely nothing to offer on the shelves. But we were able to, you know. We still had honey to sell, we still planted our pumpkins and had our entertainment side of things. So like you were saying, diversifying, it really can help you weather the storms, because you can't predict what's going to be pressuring on your farm, especially in the future. And you hope that you have another generation that is as dedicated as you are. I know I saw an interesting poster about why farmers quit and the different pressures and only about two of them quit because of the money. And it was other family pressures and the amount of work or just being disoriented about what their goals were. And I'm kind of at that pivotal, I'm the third generation and this is typically when there's enough of a disconnect from the beginning tough years that the farm starts to fail because either you don't have anyone coming in or the people who are coming in and willing to work it, they may not work it with the same work ethic that it needs to in order to carry it to the next generation. But I hope and pray that I have have that drive in order to carry it to the following generations.

Eric Lee-Mäder: That's great. So if you were in a position to provide some guidance or advice to other people who are interested in and getting into farming who maybe have not had the sort of turn-key system that a family has put in place for them, what would you, what advice would you give them?

Rachel Coventry: That is a good question. Everyone's personalities are so different and the reason for doing something is. And the drive. I think if you can get as much experience prior to purchasing something or to committing longterm will help you make the best decision you can as to whether this is what I want to be doing or even where I want to be doing. You know, I don't love Illinois. It's flat, it's boring, it's hot, it's humid. You can't pick up apple trees and move them like that. But you know, what draws me to it is it is my family's legacy and family means a whole lot to me. And I've discovered that, especially when I went away. And that was one of my reasons for going away is because I really wanted to take that time to evaluate is this really, really what I want to commit myself to? Because it's not easy turning down family or leaving family when you're wrapped up in it. And so, and I know your question is not about family, but rather starting out from scratch. And you see this all the time where people are accountants and all of a sudden they leave that profession and now they're farmers. And I think sometimes they make the best because they know what they're leaving behind and they have this new appreciation versus someone who grew up in my situation is like, well I hate farming. I hate spending 10 hours out there hoeing weeds in the hot sun. So I think if you can get real hands-on experience, you'll have a much better understanding. We hire kids all the time to help us hoe the pumpkin patch and most of them can't make it through a day. So I think they quickly are either turned off or the ones that stick it out are like, yes, this is what I love to do. And they're the ones who I see moving forward carrying on their own projects. Even something like the PeaceCorps, the PeaceCorps sends people to do agriculture work when all they have is a background in having a garden. I saw that all the time when I was in Paraguay and yet they, you know, dug in their heels and they took it on with a passion and they knew that was their thing. So I think the most experienced you can get is the better indication of whether it's for you. What do you see your future, especially with as Xerces Society? You've been there for 10 years now, I believe you told me. And what do you see as the future?

Eric Lee-Mäder: I think for better and worse, I think I got a lot of job security. You know, we've seen since 2006 when honeybee losses were really, really significant. This country, we've seen just this ongoing trend of both hard years of beekeeping and increasingly bad news about wild insects. And it's discouraging because I know that there's been millions, literally millions of dollars put into honeybee research over the past decade. There's been millions of dollars. And let's be clear, you know, not millions of dollars, tens or hundreds of millions of dollars put into honeybee research, hundreds of millions of dollars put in to wild pollinator conservation efforts. And the overall trends are still bad trends. There's still trends that are demonstrating widespread losses and ongoing declines. So unfortunately, I think I've got decent job security doing what I do. On a positive note, I think that there are companies, there are individual farmers, there are policy makers, there's people within all strata of society who are more and more committed to trying to turn the tide who are doing things from, in the case of policy makers working to make sure there's robust conservation provisions for all these in the Farm Bill to companies that are trying to incentivize more pollinator conservation and pollinator protection in their supply chains to individual people who are growing native plant gardens in their backyards, or even in, you know, community gardens or in little flower pots on balconies. So I am hopeful that we will arrive at a point where the tide starts to turn, but we've got a long ways to go.

Rachel Coventry: I agree. It's kind of like the plight of the honeybee. Now that everyone's aware of it, they're aware that maybe there's something they can do and make a difference. Same with all kinds of efforts. The more we can spread the awareness, hopefully we can start to turn the tides and make things better for everyone.

Eric Lee-Mäder: Yeah. Well, here's to that.

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Eric Lee-Mäder of The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Seattle, WA, and Rachel Coventry, beekeeper for Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch in Champagne, IL. You can check out links to their work in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at .SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thank you for listening. We will catch you next time!